Back to the Future – the Power of Nostalgia Marketing

Nostalgia marketing or tapping into the feelings of the ‘good ole days’ is not a new concept. Marketers have been harnessing this power for decades.
It is a tried and tested technique that when used effectively and authentically can reap serious rewards for businesses.
What is nostalgia? 
The term nostalgia describes a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. The word comes from the Greek compound, nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and a Homeric word, álgos, meaning ‘pain, ache’. The term was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home.
The key to harnessing the power of nostalgia marketing is evoking fond recollections of our past; memories and events from times, places and people we care about. The most powerful triggers include smell, sounds and touch.
Author Martin Lindstrom highlights the extreme power of nostalgia in his book Brandwashed, when he refers to medical studies that used nostalgia to help patients with brain injuries and amnesia.
Lindstrom writes about one patient who had suffered serious shock and memory loss and when probed by doctors could remember virtually nothing about his past. Yet when they placed a fragrance derived from strawberries under his nose (a favourite food from his childhood) the memories came flooding back. Similar results were reported in Alzheimer’s patients.
These results shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. I’m sure we all have smelt a familiar scent or heard a favourite song from the past that immediately took us back in time.
But what does this mean to marketing for small business? Why is it important to tap into memories from the past?
Tapping into our past
There is a phenomenon, though some say it has scientific merit, that we tend to look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses. Generally speaking nostalgia allows us to forget feelings of unpleasantness.
Some theorise that our brains are wired to recall our past experiences as being far better and more pleasurable than they really were. Some scientists have gone further to say that this feeling evolved to ensure continuation of the human race. They refer to some women’s ability to forget the full extent of the pain experienced during childbirth, leading them to have further children. Mmmm, an interesting theory better left for discussion another day, but I think we can all accept that many of us do look back on the ‘good ole days’ with fondness.
From a marketing perspective, nostalgia triggers consumers to embrace products and brands that help them connect to happier times.
It is a particularly important tool in times of uncertainty including economic recession or political instability. During times of instability we all yearn for feelings of safety, security and familiarity and reach out for things that remind us of simpler times.
Nostalgia marketing in action There are plenty of organisations or products tapping into the power of nostalgic marketing.

Brands such as Vegemite, which turned 90 last week, have mastered it by resurrecting images and advertisements from times past, while giving them 21st century twists.
Vegemite’s Managing Director – Foods, Darren O’Brien said the key to Vegemite’s longevity and success was its ability to retain its heritage while adapting with the times – so the brand remained relevant today.
You don’t have to look far to see evidence of brands harking back to a vintage or retro feeling.
Instagram, an app that allows you to apply vintage style filters to your photos has been a runaway success, infiltrating all of our social media pages.
Look around and you will see T-shirts and images featuring favourite characters and TV shows from our childhood – Mighty Mouse, Astroboy and Monkey Magic just to name a few. Retro board games and computer games such as Hungry Hippos and Mario Bros are also enjoying significant comebacks.
In the Brisbane suburb of Stones Corner you can see huge ‘Route 66’ style artwork signs welcoming you to the area. The Stones Corner precinct has recently set out to reinvigorate itself and the new signs are a link to the older building facades in the area as well as the vintage style dress shops and diners that can now be found there.
The artist Scott Redford drew inspiration from 1950s American roadside motel architecture. The 1950s is a common era marketers fall back to. It is a decade associated with simpler times.
While the artist may not have set out to tap into nostalgia marketing, and there has been mixed reviews of the signs, I for one feel warm and fuzzy when I see them. I can’t explain exactly why I feel this way, especially since I didn’t grow up in the fifties. Maybe it’s because Grease was my favourite childhood movie. Regardless of why, the important thing is that nostalgia marketing works.
There is more at work than nostalgia
Martin Lindstrom also explains in his book that marketers are targeting other feelings embedded in our childhood or younger years.
He writes that most of our adult tastes and preferences, whether they are for food, drink, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, shampoos or anything else are, actually rooted in our early childhood. He says studies have shown the majority of our brand and product preference are embedded in us by the age of seven or even earlier.
Brands we are exposed to in our childhood and teenage years not only trigger feelings of nostalgia but also of trust and familiarity. They may be the same brands our parents trusted.
SIS International Research conducted a study, which found 53 per cent of adults and 56 per cent of teens used brands they remembered from their childhoods, especially food and beverages, healthcare and consumer household goods.
Mega brand Gillette found that once a boy had tried a Gillette shaver twice, there was a staggering 92 per cent chance they would continue to use that brand as an adult. In response, Gillette in the United States, started sending out special welcome to adulthood shaver packs to young men on their birthdays or for high school graduation.
There is also significant evidence that we all have a window of openness for new experiences in fashion and music and that this window may close for good at 39. There may be a specific moment of time in our lives when we form such powerful memories involving a brand or style, that we subconsciously consume that product or emulate that style for life. Not convinced? The same studies and evidence show that many of us play music, or the type of music, that we listened to when we were around 20 or younger for the rest of our lives. This is just the tip of the nostalgic iceberg.
What businesses can do to leverage nostalgia
Even if you are a brand or business that hasn’t been around for decades, you can still harness the power of nostalgic marketing.
Clever brands use retro or vintage style colours, fonts or images in their visual identity, shop fitouts, signage and promotional materials.
You can leverage your own brand story or the history of your business’s founders, especially if you have a good story to tell.
Businesses can associate themselves with other organisations, events or business, which have heritage or long histories.
In your shop you can play music, which takes your target audience back to happy times.
You can tap into generational inside jokes and references to cult movies.
Successful brands identify their target audience and tap into the era most likely to connect with their audience. They realise that 20-year-olds are nostalgic about different things to 40-year-olds, who are different again to 60-year-olds. These brands will transport their target audience back to their most loved time and place.
Just take a look around you and see what other businesses and brands are doing to take us back in time. Take your cue from the good ole days and send your customers ‘back to the future’. Have some fun with it. I know I do.
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Kylie Fennell
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